Thursday, June 17, 2021

The Embezzler (1954)

The Embezzler was written and directed by John Gilling, a very underrated British film-maker whose reputation seems to have grown quite a bit in recent years. It’s one of his fairly early films.

It’s obviously a very low budget film with just a few sets but that doesn’t matter because this is a very character-driven crime movie. It’s the unexpected relationships between the characters that draw the viewer in, along with an odd bitter-sweet tone.

Henry Paulson (Charles Victor) is, as the voiceover narration informs us, a little man. For 54 years he has led a blameless life. But not an overly happy or satisfying life.

He is entirely dominated by his shrewish wife. He is Chief Cashier at the local bank. Perhaps one day he might become manager of a branch.

And then Mr Paulson finds out that he has only a short time to live. It’s his heart. he has always daydreamed about doing something exciting, perhaps traveling to exotic places. Now that is never going to happen. Or perhaps it will. After all he now has nothing to lose. He could help himself to the contents of the bank vault, and see those exotic places after all. He might even end up in Rio. Why not?

He gets away with the robbery and then sets off on the first stage of his journey. He gets as far as Eastbourne. Eastbourne is an English seaside resort so naturally it is pouring rain when he arrives and takes up temporary residence at an hotel.

At which point the movie changes gears. It’s not really a crime film after all. Or at least, not entirely.

The residents of the hotel are the usual motley assortment. There’s a jovial middle-aged chap who can be a bit of a bore but he’s good-hearted. There’s a young doctor named Forrest (an early role for Michael Craig) and his wife (played by Zena Marshall). There’s Miss Ackroyd, a lady of a certain age who is a secret drinker. And there’s the good-natured landlady Mrs Larkin (Peggy Mount).

Then a fellow named Alec Johnson (Cyril Chamberlain) turns up. This worries Mr Paulson, who of course has reason to worry since he’s on the run. Johnson seems like he could spell trouble.

Mr Paulson has spent his life as an innocent bystander rather than active participant but now he finds himself being drawn into the lives of these people. Getting involved in other people’s lives is complicated and difficult but it’s oddly satisfying. Mr Paulson has discovered that he actually likes people. He likes them a lot. Of course the viewer might think that he should be concentrating on getting to Rio but instead he’s getting entangled in a number of interlocking human dramas.

Charles Victor is rather wonderful. He makes Paulson a very sympathetic character, We want him to get away with the robbery. He deserves a few years of happiness. He’s such a nice man. The whole cast is quite impressive.

This is a movie that could have descended into sentimentality but it doesn’t. It’s emotional certainly, but not sentimental. There’s some humour as well, and some nice little ironic touches.

I hadn’t heard of The Embezzler until it was mentioned in passing on the Riding the High Country blog.

The Embezzler really is a neat little movie. Highly recommended.

Other John Gilling films that are very much worth seeing and that I have also reviewed include the film noir No Trace and the slightly noirishy spy thriller Deadly Nightshade.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Sky Raiders (1941 serial)

Sky Raiders is a 1941 Universal serial and it belongs to a sub-genre that I’m very fond of, the aviation adventure serial. It’s also a spy thriller so that makes it even more promising.

Captain Robert Dayton (Donald Woods) had commanded an elite fighter squadron in the Great War. Now he runs Sky Raiders Inc, an aviation company that is developing a new high-tech pursuit plane. A ruthless international spymaster, Felix Lynx (Eduardo Ciannelli), is determined to get hold of the plans but there aren’t any plans - everything is in Dayton’s head! So Lynx decides to steal the plane itself. The aircraft is about to make its first test flight. Dayton is supposed to have retired from active flying but he makes the test flight himself. The flight ends disastrously.

Lynx’s next plan is more ambitious - not to steal the new pursuit plane but to kidnap its designer. His plans are of course ludicrously complicated, involving an exact double for one of the main characters. There’s also a sub-plot about a new bomb sight.

Don’t expect the cliffhanger endings to be quite as inspired as those you get in the best of the William Witney-directed Republic serials but the ones in Sky Raiders are still pretty good.

The aerial sequences are generally excellent and fairly convincing. The miniatures work is extremely well done as are the process shots and there’s a considerable amount of actual aerial stunt work. And there’s lots of aerial stuff - the emphasis is very much on the actual flying with many of the narrow escapes from danger being the result of the normal hazards of early aviation rather than the machinations of the villains. Although the villain does his best to add to those dangers.

What’s interesting is that the usual serial clichés, like the bad guys kidnapping the heroine, are dispensed with. The heroine certainly finds herself in plenty of danger but in more interesting ways than was usual.

Donald Woods as Dayton makes a fine square-jawed action hero. He’s incredibly stubborn and his determination to do everything himself, including all the test flights, put him in additional danger.

Eduardo Ciannelli plays the villain Felix Lynx. He’s not as over-the-top as some serial villains but he is menacing.

Kathryn Adams is terrific as Mary Blake, Dayton’s devoted secretary who is obviously madly in love with him although of course he somehow manages not to notice. She’s a perfect serial heroine - she’s brave and resourceful but in a very feminine way. She doesn’t pack guns or anything like that but she is a skilled aviatrix which comes in handy on numerous occasions. She gives a lively and likeable performance.

Alpha Video’s DVD release is not great but it’s quite acceptable.

Sky Raiders might not be one of the more famous serials but it’s well worth seeking out. It doesn’t adhere slavishly to serial conventions and it has action, romance and great aerial sequences. Highly recommended.

Monday, June 7, 2021

The Fatal Hour (AKA Mr Wong at Headquarters, 1940)

The Fatal Hour
(also released as Mr. Wong at Headquarters) was the fourth of the six Poverty Row B-movies made by Monogram featuring Chinese sleuth Mr Wong, a character created in a series of short stories by Hugh Wiley. The movie, with Boris Karloff as Mr Wong, came out in 1940.

San Francisco cop Dan Grady is found floating in the bay. He has two slugs in him so he clearly didn’t drown. Since he and Grady were old pals Captain Street (Grant Withers) of the Homicide Squad is pretty keen to find the killer and he’s happy to get some assistance from another old pal, the famed private detective Mr Wong (Boris Karloff). 

Whether he likes it or not he’s also going to get some help from Feisty Girl Reporter Bobbie Logan (Marjorie Reynolds).

The trail leads Wong to a notorious bar and gambling joining, the Club Neptune (run by Hardway Harry Locket), and to a jewellery store. Grady had been working on a smuggling case and in his desk in his office was found a piece of extremely valuable jade. That’s what takes Wong to Belden’s jewellery store. It normally sells cheap costume jewellery but one of Wong’s contacts in Chinatown suggests that it might deal in expensive jade as well. Jade acquired by means that are not strictly legal, such as smuggling.

There are plenty of shady characters who might be suspects, including glamorous adventuress Tanya Serova (Lita Chevret). All of the suspects are pretty plausible.

The solution is clever and makes use of the very latest technology of the time.

I’m not one of those people who gets all disapproving at the idea of non-Asian actors playing Asian characters but there is a problem with Karloff’s performance, especially in this film. There’s nothing even remotely Chinese about Mr Wong. It’s not Karloff’s appearance that is the trouble but he just comes across as a nice respectable middle-aged English gentleman. In Wiley’s short stories Wong is a highly educated highly assimilated Chinese-American but at least you get the idea that his Chinese heritage is a part of him. It’s not that Karloff’s acting is bad. It’s excellent. He just doesn’t make any attempt at all to make the character Chinese.

A bit more of a Chinatown angle would have helped in this respect.

The other cast members are reasonable enough if not exactly brilliant. Grant Withers can best be described as stolid. Marjorie Reynolds is quite good as Bobbie Logan. She’s there to add glamour and a lighter touch and she does that successfully. Lita Chevret isn’t dazzling but she manages to convince us that she’s a mysterious exotic femme fatale type.

William Nigh directed the first five Mr Wong films (all the Karloff ones in other words). Making B-movies is what he did and he did it a lot, and competently enough. Scott Darling’s screenplay is pretty good and for a B-movie this one has sufficient plot complexity to keep things interesting.

For hardcore golden age detective fiction fans there’s plenty of misdirection and a neat unbreakable alibi angle. And Mr Wong does do some real detecting and gets to demonstrate why he’s such a famous detective.

The Mr Wong movies are in the public domain and some of the DVD releases are not too good. All six movies are available in a two-disc set from VCI, with quite acceptable transfers. If you’re a B-movie fan you’ll want to consider picking up this set.

The Fatal Hour is fine B-movie entertainment and a cut above what you expect from Monogram Pictures. Highly recommended.

I’ve also reviewed The Mystery of Mr Wong, Mr Wong in Chinatown and Mr Wong, Detective.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

The Golden Blade (1953)

The Golden Blade is a 1953 Universal swashbuckler starring Rock Hudson. It’s one of the many swashbucklers of that era inspired by the tales of the Arabian Nights.

Basra and Bagdhad are engaged in a bitter territorial dispute. Harun (Rock Hudson) is the son of a merchant of Basra. His father is killed during a raid and Harun vows to take vengeance on the men responsible. He has a clue - a medallion dropped by one of his father’s killers.

Not long afterwards Harun comes across a sword in a merchant’s shop. The sword turns out to be a truly remarkable weapon, but only in the hands of the right man. It appears that Destiny has decided that Harun is that man.

He also encounters a girl. The girl is in the middle of inciting a riot. What he doesn’t know is that the girl (played by Piper Laurie) is the Princess Khairuzan. And their paths will cross again.

The Caliph has problems of which he is as yet not fully aware. His vizier, Jafar (George Macready) is plotting to seize his throne (or rather to seize the throne for his son Hadi with Jafar of course to be the real power behind the throne). It is in pursuit of this aim that Jafar has been stirring up trouble between Baghdad and Basra. In further pursuit of this objective Jafar is hoping to marry his son Hadi to Khairuzan. To say that Khairuzan is displeased when she hears about this marriage plan would be an understatement. She is furious.

Harun is focused totally on revenge, or at least he was. But now he has the magic sword and according to the inscription on it it is the key to a kingdom. In fact it serves a similar story purpose to the sword in the stone in the King Arthur legends. Now Harun has the possibility of a throne to motivate him, and he has another motivation as well - to win the hand of Khairuzan. And to save her from having to marry Hadi, and to foil the schemes of Jafar.

The magic sword could have presented some story problems. It makes its wielder invulnerable and invincible which would make things too easy for the hero so for most of the story he doesn’t actually have the sword. The sword is really just a symbol anyway - it is Harun’s own skill, courage and honour that makes him a worthy hero and he manages pretty well without it.

I like Rock Hudson in swashbucklers. OK, he’s not Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power but he does the handsome brave adventure hero thing pretty well and with just a hint of a twinkle in his eye. Piper Laurie makes an amusing feisty heroine. George Macready is a fine villain.

Nathan Juran was a capable director of usually fairly modestly-budgeted adventure and science fiction films. He keeps things moving along at a nice clip. John Rich wrote the screenplay.

The plot is pretty much a stock-standard story of its type.

The Harun in the story is supposed to be the famous Caliph Harun al-Rashid although of course the story has little to do with the historical Harun al-Rashid. Harun al-Rashid was a bit like King Arthur, with countless fanciful tales being told about him (some of which are included in the Arabian Nights).

My copy of this film comes from the five-movie Rock Hudson Screen Legend boxed set (which offers a very good transfer) but it’s also been released on Blu-Ray.

I bought this movie on the strength of a glowing review at Laura's Miscellaneous Musings.

The Golden Blade might be somewhat formulaic but it’s extremely well-made, the plotting is solid enough, it looks great, the cast is excellent and it has the right mix of action, adventure and romance with some dashes of humour. It all adds up to terrific entertainment. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

The Comedians (1967)

Graham Greene adapted his own novel for the 1967 movie The Comedians. The movie follows the novel fairly closely except for the ending.

Mr Brown (Richard Burton) has returned to Haiti after a three-month absence. Haiti was at that time under the brutal dictatorship of François Duvalier (known popularly as Papa Doc) so returning there was not a good idea but there are two things that brought him back. The first is that he owns a hotel there, and the Hotel Trianon is the only thing of substance he has ever owned in his life. The second thing is his desire to rekindle his love affair with Martha Pineda, the German wife of the ambassador of an unnamed South American country (the ambassador is played by Peter Ustinov). He has no idea if he loves Martha but he cannot keep away from her. He cannot get her out of his system.

Haiti at this time attracted no tourists at all so the ship which brought Brown back to Haiti brought only a handful of other passengers. These included Major Jones (Alec Guinness) and Mr Smith (Paul Ford) and his wife (Lillian Gish). The fates of Brown, Jones and the Smiths are going to become rather entangled.

Major Jones doesn’t even get to leave the dockside before he is arrested. He has committed a cardinal sin. He has arrived with an introduction to a senior government minister but before his arrival that minister had fallen from power. Under Papa Doc’s regime falling from power means being dead. And having an introduction to such a person is enough to get you arrested by the Tontons Macoute, Papa Doc’s much-feared secret police. Mr Smith has an introduction to the Secretary of Social Welfare, who is now lying dead in the swimming pool of the Hotel Trianon. That could cause difficulties for Mr Smith. And for Brown.

Major Jones claims to have been something of a hero during the Second World War, fighting the Japanese in Burma. Brown has his suspicions about those war stories.

Jones is in fact very familiar with the inside of jail cells. He has a sublime confidence in his own ability to talk himself out of such situations.

Mr Smith is referred to as the Presidential Candidate, on the basis of having been a minor candidate (gaining a handful of votes) in the 1948 election. But being a Presidential Candidate of any kind can be useful in Haiti. Mr and Mrs Smith plan to open a centre for vegetarianism in Haiti. They believe that all of the world’s problems can be solved by vegetarianism. They will discover that Haiti is perhaps not the ideal place for such a project.

Graham Greene was much concerned with faith and innocence. He had problems with both. He was especially afraid of the destructive consequences of innocence. As for faith, it isn’t always easy and like innocence it can lead to fatal delusions. The movie brings out these themes reasonably effectively. Mr Smith puts his faith in vegetarianism, Brown’s friend Dr Magiot (James Earl Jones) in communism, Henri Phillipot (the nephew of the deceased Secretary of Social Welfare) puts his in revolution. Brown is a man who has never been able to put his faith in anything. Maybe he could put his faith in love but an affair with a married woman might not be a wise choice.

Martha is German and that does play a part in the story. Miss Taylor attempts a slight German accent and while it comes and goes it’s reasonably convincing. She very wisely keeps it as subtle as possible. In the book Martha is an undeveloped character and that was deliberate. We only see her though Brown’s eyes and Brown is a man who just doesn’t know how to connect with other people, or how to understand what makes them tick. Martha remains a mystery to him, just as life remains a mystery to him. Of course with Elizabeth Taylor providing the star power for the movie it was necessary to flesh the character out a bit more, which the movie does with mixed success. Taylor does her best and she’s pretty good.

The point I made about Brown’s inability to connect with or empathise with other people explains Burton’s performance. A lot of people hate his performance in this movie but in fact he captures the essence of Brown perfectly. Burton is low-key, and deliberately so. Brown is a man who is a stranger to genuine emotion. Burton knows what he’s doing.

One of the problems that people have with this is the acting. When you have people like Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Alec Guinness, Peter Ustinov, and James Earl Jones in the cast you expect big performances. But the title of the book refers to the fact that all the key characters are merely actors in the tragi-comedy of life. They’ve all lost the ability to genuinely participate in life. This means that the actors have to give low-key performances rather than bravura performances. Low-key performances are what they do give, and they’re right to do so, but with that cast audiences probably expected some real acting fireworks. The only actor who does give a colourful performance is Alec Guinness, and he does so because his part demands it.

As partial compensation the movie does look stunning. Papa Doc had been enraged by Greene’s novel so filming in Haiti was out of the question. Dahomey in West Africa was chosen instead and the location shooting is impressive. The Hotel Trianon looks simply wonderful, and the scenes depicting Duvalierville (Papa Doc’s showcase new city, his version of Brasilia) are a memorable depiction of folly and delusion.

The ending of the movie is quite different from that of the book but I think both endings work.

I think the main problem with this film was the choice of director. Greene had written successful screenplays before and he understood movies. His three superb collaborations with director Carol Reed (The Third Man, The Fallen Idol, Our Man in Havana) provide ample proof of that. But Greene and Carol Reed were on the same wavelength and Reed was a genuinely great director. Peter Glenville’s direction here is stodgy. The movie looks great and it has some fine moments but it’s too long and too unfocused. Carol Reed could have taken this screenplay and made a great movie out of it.

It’s not a bad movie, it’s just a bit disappointing. All the ingredients are there and the cast is excellent but Glenville just didn’t seem to be able to make the story ignite the way it should have ignited.

The Comedians bombed at the box office and that’s understandable but it’s really a reasonably good movie. It just isn’t the major cinematic event that audiences would have expected considering the star power on display and considering the fact that Graham Greene’s novels were so ideally suited for cinematic adaptation.

This film has its flaws and it really is too long but it’s a much better movie than its reputation would suggest. You just have to keep in mind that the atmosphere of the movie, the atmosphere of defeat and futility, is completely faithful to Greene’s novel. I think it’s worth seeing and I’m giving it a recommended rating.

The Comedians is available in a TCM Burton-Taylor boxed set, in a pretty good anamorphic transfer with a making-of featurette as an extra.

I've also reviewed Greene's original novel.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Untamed Youth (1957)

Untamed Youth is a juvenile delinquent rock’n’roll musical melodrama starring Mamie van Doren.

Penny Lowe (van Doren) and her sister Jane (Lori Nelson) are aspiring singer/dancers on their way to LA when they get busted by a small-town sheriff for skinny-dipping and hitch-hiking. Judge Cecilia Steele (Lurene Tuttle) gives them the choice of thirty days in the county lock-up or thirty days as agricultural workers. Naturally they chose the agricultural worker option.

What they don’t know is that they’ve been caught up in a racket run by the judge, the sheriff and crooked cotton farmer Russ Tropp (John Russell). Young people get arrested by the sheriff on bogus or ridiculously trivial charges and end up picking cotton for Tropp for 75 cents a day. There’s a shortage of cotton pickers so this is a huge advantage for Tropp - the other cotton farmers in the country can’t get labourers while he’s getting virtual slave labour for peanuts. The other farmers will eventually have to sell out to him and he’ll end up filthy rich. The sheriff gets paid off and the middle-aged judge thinks she’ll end up marrying the young handsome Tropp.

Tropp is involved in all manner of crooked business dealings and the prisoners at the farm are mercilessly exploited. Tropp also sexually exploits the female prisoners (adding another exploitation movie angle) and he tries it on with Penny. When Penny rebuffs him he sets his dogs on her.

Tropp has made one miscalculation. He’s employed Judge Steele’s son Bob at the ranch. Bob is a straight arrow and he falls for Jane Lowe, and he starts digging around looking for evidence of Tropp’s shady dealings.

So that’s the melodrama angle. There’s also the exploitation angle (juvenile delinquents, Mamie van Doren in tight dresses). And within the first few minutes we get a cat-fight when Jane Lowe gets into a dispute with one of the other girls at the farm.

All of this would have made for an OK B-movie but Untamed Youth has rock’n’roll as well. The kids amuse themselves after a hard day’s cotton-picking dancing to rock’n’roll and from time to time they spontaneously burst into song in the cotton fields.

The big surprise, and it’s a very pleasant one, is that the songs are great. It helps that one of the young cotton-pickers is played by Eddie Cochran, about a year before he became a major rock’n’roll idol. Eddie Cochran gets one very good song but Mamie van Doren gets four songs and she’s terrific. Oo-Ba-La Baby (co-written by Eddie Cochran) is a show-stopper.

Perhaps Mamie van Doren isn’t the world’s greatest actress but she has presence and charisma and this rôle is well within her acting range and she acquits herself well. She’s smokin’ hot, she has the right moves when she dances and her songs are good. This was one of her favourite rôles and it’s easy to see why.

Lori Nelson is very good although she’s overshadowed by Mamie van Doren. But everyone in this movie is overshadowed by Mamie van Doren. Lurene Tuttle is reasonably good. John Russell as Tropp is memorably slimy. The other cast members are quite adequate. It’s not as if any of the characters are complex or well-developed. They’re not meant to be. This is a lightweight B-movie.

Untamed Youth
has been released on DVD is the Warner Archive series, with a good anamorphic transfer and no extras.

Untamed Youth is not a movie to be taken at all seriously. It’s not a good movie in a conventional sense but it is a very good cult movie. It has juvenile delinquents, rock’n’roll and Mamie van Doren. And it’s fun. That’s enough to keep me happy. Highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed several other Mamie van Doren movies in the past year or so - The Girl in Black Stockings, Vice Raid and the wonderful Guns, Girls and Gangsters.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

The Share Out (1962)

The Share Out is a 1962 entry in the Merton Park Studios Edgar Wallace cycle and it’s based on an intriguing idea.

The Calderwood Property Group is a very successful company with all the trappings of commercial success. The chairman is Colonel Calderwood (Alexander Knox). They have board meetings like any other company, to discuss business matters. But the business of the Calderwood Property Group is blackmail. Blackmail of an unusual kind. They gather, by various means (usually unsavoury and dishonest private enquiry agents), incriminating material - photos, documents and the like - on wealthy individuals and companies. They then force those individuals and companies to sell them properties for a fraction of their value. It’s a very successful racket and it allows Colonel Calderwood and his fellow board members to maintain the appearance of prosperous respectability. And since the blackmail method does not involve cash payments it’s not all that easy for the police to prove that blackmail has in fact been involved. 

Detective Superintendent Meredith (Bernard Lee) has been trying for three years to break this racket but none of the victims (who fear that court proceedings would reveal their dirty little secrets) will co-operate. Now Meredith thinks he’s got a break but it’s a question of whether he or Colonel Calderwood can move most quickly. And Calderwood moves very quickly indeed, and very ruthlessly.

The Calderwood Property Group has amassed a great deal of money and at least one board member, John Crewe (Richard Vernon) feels that it’s time to share out the loot. The Colonel disagrees. He feels that they can accumulate a lot more without taking any undue risks. Monet (John Gabriel) and Diana Marsh (Moira Redmond), the other board members, are willing to go along with Calderwood. The problem of course is that once they share out the loot there’s nothing to stop any of the four from taking his or her share and then turning the others in to the police. So the share out, when it comes, will present difficulties.

So it’s all a matter of who’s going to stab whom in the back, and which of them will strike first, and what alliances may be made, and how trustworthy such alliances might be. And murder makes it rather more urgent that these questions be cleared up. There are only a handful of suspects but the movie is reasonably successful at keeping us guessing as to the truth. 

Blackmail is an inherently sordid crime but blackmail by well-heeled upper-class types provides an interesting flavour. 

There are also romantic complications as Mike Stafford and Diana Marsh fall for each other but is it love or manipulation?

This movie benefits from a fine cast. Bernard Lee could play this sort of rôle with his eyes shut. He was just born to play Scotland Yard detectives. Alexander Knox is smooth and sinister as Calderwood. Richard Vernon is always a delight. William Russell (best known for The Adventures of Sir Lancelot and as one of the very early companions in Doctor Who) plays cheerfully amoral private enquiry agent Mike Stafford (who works for Calderwood but may or may not be inclined to sell him out to Superintendent Meredith. Moira Redmond makes a good evil female conspirator/femme fatale.

Director Gerard Glaister had a distinguished career in television (mainly as a producer) and helmed four of the Merton Park Edgar Wallace films. He does a very competent job here. Philip Mackie’s screenplay is typically clever - Mackie was one of the best television writers of the ’60s and ’70s and he wrote no less than eight of the Edgar Wallace films. 

Network, as usual, have provided an excellent anamorphic transfer. There are no extras but these Edgar Wallace sets are such outstanding value for money that it would be churlish to complain.

The Share Out is a good solid entry in the series. The most impressive thing about these Edgar Wallace films is that they didn’t just keep repeating themselves. You’re never quite sure what to expect when you put one of these discs in your DVD player. The lesser movies in the series are good and the better ones are very good indeed. The Share Out is recommended.